Thursday, June 10, 2010

Are you Goa'n my way...

One of the most quoted lines from expats living over here is “the best part about Doha is leaving Doha.” As much as I like Doha, sometimes you just need a break. The semester was still in full swing, but I just wanted get out of town for a few days. [NAME REMOVED] had beaten me to the punch, as she scheduled a week’s holiday in the Indian state of Goa.

Located on the western shores in central India, Goa was a former Portuguese colony up until 1961. Known for its beautiful coastline and Portuguese architecture, it is a serious vacation destination for Europeans. It is also know as a world-class drug den for hipsters looking to score cheap LSD and trip the night away in neon filled raves.

[NAME REMOVED] took off a week before me to attend yoga camp. A full week of fasting, stretching, and possibly gassing up next to complete strangers wasn’t my idea of fun… but there she went with a smile on her face. I scheduled a three-day weekend, used my Qatar Airways miles, and got a near-free flight to Goa.

This trip actually started to get interesting a week prior to leaving. I had to find the new Indian embassy in Doha (they moved without telling anyone) to get another visa. While standing in line in the non-air conditioned room packed in with a few hundred of my fellow laborers, a security guard came from behind the barred windows to switch the televisions in the room from calling out our queue numbers to a cricket match. It was India versus their rival, South Africa. India’s main batsman, Sachin Tendulkar, was on the pitch and was doing incredibly well with 187 runs already on the board. If you know cricket, you will know that this many runs during a bat is unheard of… it’s like hitting a home run at every bat for a month or scoring fifteen rushing touchdowns in a single game… cannot be accomplished.

But there he was, getting up to 190. All eyes in the room turned to the televisions. The lines stopped moving. The men and women behind the counters came out to watch. Another run… applause from the room. Another six runs and choruses of cheers and singing broke out. The tension was thick in the room, with every little Indian man, woman, and child on their feet as Tendulkar swung on a throw, and the ball sailed over the heads of the outfielders for another sixer… breaking the double century of 200 runs.

And the crowd went wild!! Everyone was hugging and jumping up and down! Men jumped up onto the stern blue plastic benches and started to chant his name, “Tendulkar! Tendulkar!” And there I was… not quite sure why this was such a big deal, but enjoying the good vibes. Turns out, this event made global news. When I got off the plane in Goa (where Tendulkar is from) banners, billboards, and the local newspapers were still covering the event a week later with the fervor of the moon landing. And just like the moon landing, when I’m asked where I was when Tendulkar broke the double century, I can honestly say I saw it live, on Indian soil… even though I was still in Qatar.

My flight landed really early in the morning, around 3 a.m. I was met by the hotel driver and was loaded up into a small car with a young couple and their two-year daughter. We took off into the eerily silent Indian night. Not many lights guided us along the roads past a few auto rickshaws and cattle lining the roads. After an hour, we reached the hotel, but not before the little girl puked in the backseat over her mom. Those last five minutes of driving with the car reeking of vomitous airline food were not the way I wanted to start my vacation.

At the hotel gates, our car was spotlighted and thoroughly searched both inside and out. It was then that I realized I was staying at the Taj Holiday Village, the same company as the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai; scene of the brutal 2008 massacre. After checking into my room, I fell fast asleep. When I awoke, I saw that my room overlooked a quaint garden with large coconut trees shading me from above. I walked down the flowered pathway down to the beach. This hotel was located directly next to Fort Aguda, the red stone encampment that is built directly into the Arabian Sea. Just off the coast was a rusted oil tanker that ran aground and was never relocated. The restaurant and beach front villas were actually perched on a cliff about twenty feet above the water. The breeze was warm and humid, and not filled with lung choking dust. At one end of the resort was their “golf course,”… I put that into quotes since it was just six flags stuck in random places across an open field. I decided to mark out my territory with a reclining chair, pack of cigarettes, and my books… and went about my business of relaxing. An early morning Tiger Beer in hand, I reclined under the palm trees and spent the entire day doing nothing but reading and napping until the sun started to set. Snacks of papadums and mixed chutneys kept my strength up, while I made sure the beers and cocktails kept coming. A simple room service of chicken curry was all I needed before I spent the night watching the stars come out over the water and the large bats swarm to munch on the abundant mosquitoes.

The next day… pretty much the same as before. I actually slept thru breakfast and awoke when [NAME REMOVED] showed up knocking on my garden doors. Her yoga classes were finally over, and she was aching for some actual food. I keep telling her to never trust a skinny chef. She regaled me with stories about downward dog and lotus positioning while keeping her mula bandha relaxed… by the way, that means the actual asshole in yoga-speak.

I took her down to the coast for a broad spread of Indian delicacies (including, of course, pork) and led her to my sunbathing spot between the cliff’s edge and the pool boy cabana. She grabbed her books and a pina colada, and we finished the day playfully ragging on the overly tanned European men in their Speedos and skin that made them looked like tattooed hotdogs.

The next morning after breakfast, we decided to leave the confines of our resort hotel, and venture out into Goa. Having spent some time in India before, strolling outside the hotel walls weren’t as exciting or interesting as my first time. Throngs of dirt covered men were walking barefoot along the road, carrying antifreeze and rugs under both arms. The smell of cardamom and curry powders were wafting thru the air. [NAME REMOVED] negotiated with a micro-van driver for a spin through the city center of Old Goa.

Old Goa was once a city with a greater population then either London or Paris. We careened through the traffic maze and blaring horns (good to know that still hasn’t changed) until we reached the Basilica of Bom Jesus. This Portuguese baroque church was built in 1594 of dark marble and precious stones inlaid into the walls with ancient white timbers for the roof. Near the altar in a candle lit apse, are the remains of St. Francis Xavier, one of the founders of the Jesuits. His body is entombed in a silver casket inside of a wood and glass carved framework. For whatever reason, his body did not decompose in the heat and humidity of India, and his reliquary was on full display. Upon leaving the main church, you enter into a serene garden courtyard where old women were pulling weeds and lighting incense. Just across the streets was the Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria, another magnificent example of the ancient churches still standing in all their glory. It makes you kinda sad when you see examples of these buildings. It seems that back in the day, men built empires and civilizations… and all we can do is build gas stations and shopping malls.

From the basilica, we found our driver and asked to be taken to the bishop’s house where we try to follow a walking tour of Old Goa. The driver pulled past the city center and headed up into the hills until we reached, appropriately, the house of the local bishop. The home was built like a palace, and is the head of the Catholic Church in India. From there, we slowly climbed down the hill past the multicolored homes that still retained the clean and vibrant architecture of Portugal. We reached the fountain as listed in our guide, then got a little lost. Having had to backtrack, we stopped some Hindu monks for directions. They guided us down a narrow winding goat path/road that snaked down vertical to the cliff. At the end of the path we were welcomed into a Hindu temple where monks and local women were cleaning the narrow alleys and statues with handmade brooms. After another ten minutes of walking, we discovered that we had made our way back to the center of town next to the gleaming white Christian church.

[NAME REMOVED] really wanted to eat lunch at a famous backpacker hangout, so we grabbed an auto rickshaw. Down a dark alley was a secluded little hangout with a few outdoor tables. It was here that I downed more Tigers and plates of curried chicken and fish, plus mutter paneer and freshly fired spring onion parantha. While [NAME REMOVED] noshed on her chutneys, a huge rat about the size of a rabbit scrambled out of a hole in the wall behind her was scurried beneath our table. I didn’t want to frighten her, so I put it out of my mind until two more made the trek. Little did she know that for about ten minutes I held my feet off the ground, hoping not to feel them nibble on my toes and start shrieking like a four-year old girl.

We flagged down another auto rickshaw and headed back to the hotel for showers and an afternoon nap. Dinner was being provided via a contact [NAME REMOVED] had made at her yoga cult. Someone had suggested a secluded French restaurant for up in north Goa. We hired a car outside of the hotel, and drove thru the resort row. The scene was more Fort Lauderdale than India, with shops for sunscreen and bathing suits next to outdoor bars playing Top 40 hits over speakers hidden in trees. But just beyond these stores would be tin shack homes where you could see the cooking fires roaring inside. Soon we were completely out of the towns and were cruising down the narrow roads filled with cattle and speed bumps as the sun went down.
Our driver got a little lost and had to make a few U-turns, but we finally found the restaurant entrance on the edge of a beach. The restaurant was a simple cabana, open-air with only the beach sand as a floor. Colored lights swayed in the wind and lit up the tables while the waves crashed onto the shore just below. We shared a great French meal and sweet wine, finishing it off with the classic floating island dessert. Dogs were roaming between the tables and getting into fights while people were enjoying their sorbets.

A quiet car ride later, we were back at the hotel where we quickly packed up our stuff and rested before we had to catch our 4 a.m. flight. The airport in Goa is a twisted mass of confusion. Generally, most native Indians have no conception of personal space; and therefore cannot queue. When a new passport desk opened up, everyone ran up and started pushing and shoving to get to the desk first… while we just sat back and watched. Since we are both members of a privilege club, we were escorted to the premier lounge to wait for the plane. Our premier lounge was a couch inside of a closed restaurant with all the lights turned off except for our table lamp. Our premier lounge food included a soda and a cookie… one cookie. I arrived in Doha and drove straight to work, only about ten minutes late.

This trip was really just an afterthought. I truly experienced India in all its beauty and mystery two years ago when I traveled all across the country. Goa is India Lite. It’s Diet India. It has all the charm with half the calories. It had beautiful scenery, great food, and lovely people… but to me… it wasn’t much more than a long nap under the trees.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thai restaurant experience was from the Maldives- not Goa.